Billionaire Behind Victoria’s Secret Built His Version of the American Heartland
(Bloomberg) -- Beyond emerald-green golf links, over snow-white fences, and past tree-lined cul-de-sacs rises the American fantasyland of billionaire Les Wexner.
Here in the middle of Ohio, of all places, Wexner—the man behind Victoria’s Secret and its push-up-bra notions of female beauty—has brought to life his singular vision of the heartland.
Welcome to New Albany, Wexner’s personal idyll carved into the cornfields northeast of Columbus. Over the past 30 years, he’s husbanded this affluent suburban oasis, even as much of the region has sunk into post-industrial decline and the politics of grievance. In a time of gaping inequality, the juxtapositions are jarring.
Row after row of Georgian-style McMansions have sprouted from the black soil here. Each home is nearly identical to the next, down to copper street lamps hand-made on Martha’s Vineyard, an island getaway prized by hedge-fund types. Prices run as high as $4.5 million—a bargain when compared with fashionable neighborhoods in New York, but almost unfathomable here in Ohio, where the median home costs $139,100.
“His gentle fingerprints are everywhere,” the mayor, Sloan Spalding, said of Wexner.
Gentle for a multibillionaire, maybe. Wexner’s mega-mansion isn’t the only reminder that he’s the richest man in town—or the state, for that matter. There’s also the various signs around the city bearing his name—Wexner Community Park and Wexner Medical Center—and the annual equestrian show he and his wife Abigail hosted for the entire town on their property for 20 years.
Not that his neighbors are poor, by any measure—the median household income is close to $200,000, nearly four times that of the state. The number of housing options designated as affordable in New Albany: zero. (The city is working with adjacent communities to build affordable housing just beyond its borders.)
Still, New Albany residents love the place, and why not? Cookie-cutter architecture is a common feature of many exurbs. But in the eyes of New Albanians, the Georgian architecture isn’t commonplace, it’s “timeless.” New Albany (population: 10,718) also offers 46 miles of leisure trails, a 200-acre learning campus and a speaker series that’s featured U.S. presidents. On rainy days, when the grounds people tend the 27-hole, Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, the entire place smells of fresh-cut grass.
New Albany was founded in 1837, but its story really begins in the late 1980s, when Wexner was looking for somewhere to build a country home. The Columbus, Ohio, native spent weekends scouring central Ohio for the perfect spot to construct his rural getaway. That’s how he found New Albany—which was then only “a community of plain topography,” as Wexner put it in a written response to emailed questions.
After buying 30 acres and then an additional 30, Wexner became “intrigued” with building something larger. It was dirt-cheap at the time. A 90-acre plot for his mansion was valued by the county auditor at $192,300 in 1987, a couple of years before Wexner bought it. That same parcel—land and property—is now valued at $45.6 million.
Through his development firm, New Albany Co., Wexner ended up with more than 10,000 acres—the entire town and then some. He assembled a group of the country’s top architects and landscapers, with whom he spent Saturday mornings designing the town.
“People joke that it was a one-stop sign town, and it really was,” said Spalding. “A billionaire moved in next door, and things changed.”
One of the first things Wexner built—aside from his own home—was the country club, one of the nicest in the state, which set a precedent for the type of person who should live in New Albany. The rest of the town came up around it, including the 4,000-acre business park.
Discover Financial committed to building an office there in 1998, the first company to do so. A farmer had to plow through a corn field to show where the building would stand.
There’s no more corn. Today, it’s a vast community of corporate campuses and a few empty lots of dirt, grass and half-constructed buildings that will soon house Facebook Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc. data centers. The latter purchased its site in December for $54.5 million from a subsidiary of Wexner’s New Albany Co.
The Silicon Valley giants will join some of Wexner’s current and former brands: Abercrombie & Fitch and Justice are both headquartered there, and Bath & Body Works has an enormous office in the park.
Wexner has a slightly longer commute—L Brands is headquartered in Columbus, not far from where he opened his first store in 1963.
L Brands has since grown into the $6.2 billion retail empire it is today. But in recent years, his business has faced unprecedented challenges.
L Brands shares have slumped nearly 70% over the past four years as its flagship lingerie empire failed to adapt to consumer demands, most recently in the #MeToo era. After criticism over the company’s failure to transform in an age of female empowerment, body positivity and acceptance, Wexner promised at the company’s annual meeting on Thursday, May 16, to turn things around. Last week, he announced the decision to not air the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show on television this year.
“They’ve been battling against, ‘Is sexy in? Or is sexy not in?’,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Poonam Goyal.
There are no Victoria’s Secret stores in New Albany. The customary two-toned, pink-striped and glossy black storefront would stick out like a sore thumb among the village center’s sea of sensible brick buildings.
New Albany’s matching architecture and the endless white fencing, while charming to some, are what keep others away.
“It’s a community where if you drive around, you know what you’re getting yourself into,” said Jim Lenner, manager of neighboring village Johnstown.
He added that New Albany is a great town to have next door, and the municipalities often work together. “Obviously, it appeals to a lot of people, but there are also people who aren’t interested in living there because they don’t want their house to look like their neighbor’s.”
Not to mention the fact that the cost of living in New Albany presents an insurmountable barrier to most Ohioans.
“It’s certainly true that the Wexner family cares a lot about poor people and has done a fair number of charitable things; but it also seems to be true that this product doesn’t seem to be aimed at poor people,” said Harvard University economist Ed Glaeser. “You can call that a flaw or just the way it’s designed. It’s not about providing affordable housing.”
The concept of a town built by one man isn’t all that un-American, Glaeser said. William Levitt created suburbs—“Levittowns”—after World War II for returning veterans and their families. In Texas, oil investor George Mitchell constructed the Woodlands, and Celebration, Florida, was built near Disney World by the Walt Disney Co.
After all, in America, the land of opportunity, if you’re rich enough, you can pursue your passions and hobbies to the fullest. Wexner’s hobby just happens to be master planning.
“If you told a Frenchman or a German that this was happening, they’d look at you like you were mad,” said Glaeser.
So, in addition to Wexner’s more typical billionaire possessions—a 17th century mansion in the U.K. that hosts pheasant shoots and a $39 million (35 million euros) super-yacht called Limitless, of all things—he has a bespoke society.
Wexner’s company still owns about 2,000 acres, according to a New Albany Co. spokeswoman—that’s more than 20% of the town. The billionaire continues to live there and spends Saturday mornings driving around to make sure everything is “remaining true to the original vision.” But Wexner is not only the town’s creator and overseer; he’s also just another resident.
“He’s parking the car at the Kroger and doing some grocery shopping,” said Spalding. “I pass him on the way to work every now and then. It’s hard to be an average guy when you’re a billionaire, I suppose, but he’s out in the community a lot.”
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